Steve Reich + Philip Glass mend fences

On September 11, 2014 by Will Hermes

Photo by Stephanie Berger

Photo by Stephanie Berger

For the first time in over 30 years, Steve Reich and Philip Glass shared a stage. My NPR colleague Anastasia Tsioulcas was there, and wrote about it. That composer Nico Muhly, who owes both men a lot, was performing with them made it an even more resonant occasion.

Here’s an excerpt from Love Goes To Buildings On Fire about another time Reich performed Four Organs, 40 years ago, when it elicited a rather different audience response.

Riley wound up back in New York that fall, too. But he wasn’t pleased when he discovered Reich pursuing ideas Riley felt were his, and they never worked together again. Reich did strike up a friendship with another like-minded composer, Philip Glass, a Juilliard classmate who re-introduced himself at a concert Reich gave at Paula Cooper’s Park Place Gallery—the foremost exhibition space for minimalist artists like Sol LeWitt—in early ’67. Reich and Glass formed a collective ensemble, in which they both played each other’s work. They also formed a furniture-moving company, Chelsea Light Moving, as neither one of them made enough money from their music to pay their bills.

Meanwhile, Reich’s longtime interest in drumming was rising up. He was inspired to visit Ghana in 1970 by Alfred Ladzekpo, a Ghanaian drummer teaching at Columbia University. (Ladzekpo’s African Dances and Games LP, which may also have provided the seed for Willie Colon’s “Che Che Cole,” had just been released.) The trip was something of a nightmare—Reich contracted malaria and left a month earlier than planned. But his studies there blew his mind, confirming many of his ideas on rhythm. His own music came into sharper focus, and at the end of ‘71, he premiered his extended Drumming —for bongo drums, marimbas, glockenspiels, female voices, piccolo, and a whistler (for now, himself)—over two weeks at three concerts: at the Museum of Modern Art, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Town Hall. As a new-music composer, he had arrived.

Still, a gig at Carnegie Hall, the bastion of old-school classical music, was not on his to-do list when the phone rang in late ’72.

Yet the guy on the line—Michael Tilson Thomas, 27-year-old conductor of the Boston Symphony—was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his music. He was curating a new music program for Carnegie Hall called the Spectrum series, which hoped to lure a younger audience. Thomas wanted Reich in it.

Reich agreed. His Four Organs, an extended piece employing extreme repetition and performed with four Farfisa electric organs and some Latin Percussion-brand rawhide-and-buckshot maracas, was presented in Boston without incident. The performance in his hometown on January 18, 1973, was another story.

Four Organs was not new to New York, having premiered at the Guggenheim back in 1970, with Glass at one of the keyboards. Performed by the musicians not in concert dress but in shirtsleeves—a statement in itself on the Carnegie Hall stage—the performance lasted about 16 minutes. The music was amplified, but it wasn’t rock-concert loud. And after a few minutes, the performers could hear the noise of the audience—more old guard than the young vanguard they’d hoped for— fidgeting in their seats, coughing, murmuring and rustling their programs. Soon, it was joined by groans and eventually, straight-out shouting and heckling. The musicians traded glances. There was nothing to do but to keep playing the repeated, stabbing phrases, over and over and over. The audience noise grew so loud, they couldn’t hear each other play; they had to mouth their cues, and eventually yell them, to keep the piece from falling apart. The audience was literally trying to stop the performance by shouting it down. At one point, a woman got out of her seat, and walked down the aisle towards the musicians. All eyes were on her, and when she reached the lip of the stage, she began banging her head against it repeatedly, at least in gesture, and she wailed: “Stop, stop – I confess!”

When the piece finally ended, there was a moment of silence, and then a tidal wave of boos and cat calls. The musicians bowed, and walked off stage with as much composure as they could muster.

Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times described the audience reaction in the paper “as though red-hot needles were being inserted under fingernails,” and added that he himself had heard “nothing much to like, nothing much to dislike.” Alan Rich of New York magazine, meanwhile, praised it as a “marvelous, original invention about musical time and rate of change.”

Soon enough, Steve Reich was back in his element, giving free performances of works-in-progress alongside exhibitions by his new friend, Sol Lewitt, at the John Weber Gallery. When Reich’s old colleague Phil Lesh came to town to play Nassau Coliseum with the Dead that March, they did not see each other.

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